Battling tuberculosis, South Africa wins pharma-patent dispute

South Africa took on the United States over pharmaceutical patents to battle tuberculosis — and won.

Tuberculosis is the leading cause of natural death in South Africa, and the patent dispute was part of the government’s campaign against the disease.

This also includes a United Nations declaration calling for two major strides by 2022: to cure 40 million people of the disease, and to treat millions to prevent its development.

Older treatments for TB can include painful daily injections for at least six months, and sometimes years.

Newer treatments are more expedient but also more expensive.

South Africa negotiated a reduced price for bedaquiline, an oral medication used against drug-resistant TB produced by Johnson & Johnson, from 42,000 rand (almost $3,000) per six-month course to 6,000 rand ($421). The average annual salary in South Africa is about $16,000.

At the UN, South Africa pushed for patients over patent protections for the pharmaceutical industry.

This led to a standoff with American trade officials, who opposed any language that might bring into play the World Trade Organization’s 2001 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also known as the TRIPS Agreement.

During public-health emergencies, countries can use TRIPS to issue licenses for needed drugs, allowing other companies to produce medication that was patent protected.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières’ HIV and TB advisor Sharonann Lynch, South Africa has a “right” to invoke TRIPS rather than “waiting again for a drug company to take some benevolent action.”

Sources: Bhekisisa, Stats SA (South Africa government), BusinessTech (South Africa)

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